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  • Of Need and Exploitation: Domestic Workers in Karnataka

    ‘I BEGAN WORKING when I was ten. I used to look after a child for which I was paid ten rupees a month. Today I am almost forty and I continue to work as a domestic maid. The difference is that my bones ache and I do not have the same energy. This is what happens to most of us who do domestic work. This job has no PF or ESI or anything like that. We work at others’ houses our entire lives and are left with nothing at the end,’ Maariyamma is angry but she continues to chop the double beans with great ease. ‘I have spent fifty rupees for these vegetables today, but see how little I have got. Things have become very expensive these days.’

    Maariyamma is the secretary of the Karnataka Domestic Workers Union, which has been functioning for three-and-a-half years and currently has 800 members. I am with her at her house in Byrasandra slum in Bangalore. Vinutha and Jayamma, also part of the union, join us. ‘We have our union badge. Whenever there is any problem with domestic workers in our area, we wear the badge and go to their help,’ explains Maariyamma.

    ‘Often, domestic workers are falsely blamed for cheating and stealing things. I agree that we are poor. But that does not make us dishonest all the time! In many houses even to this day, they have separate tumblers and plates for us! We take bath, dress smartly, we drink from clean steel glasses in our homes, we eat fresh food , yes we may not afford it daily but we do buy good food for our children. So there is no need to treat us like that!’

    A study conducted by the domestic workers union reveals that 70% of domestic workers are hired because people need to go outside to work. In other words, they are a crucial cog in the economic wheel, allowing many homes to earn an additional income. Yet, they remain poorly paid and face multiple discriminations. Most domestic workers are women from marginalised classes and castes and even here, in their workplace, they receive neither fair wages nor recognition as employees.

    Maariyamma explains: ‘There is no one form of payment. It depends on the employer. Some are paid as low as Rs 300 for half a day’s work. There is nobody to monitor it. And we have no leave. We work on Sundays as well.’

    ‘Many domestic workers are single earners in their families. Often, men do not have any regular work. The salary we get is never enough,’ Jayamma adds. ‘I need to pay Rs 500 for school fees? What will I feed them? This is how we end up taking loans. We met the Labour Commissioner and the minister with a letter signed by all our union people asking for the government to take steps but nothing has been done.’

    The Karnataka Government introduced a Minimum Wage Act in the year 2004 for domestic work. This for the first time domestic workers were included under the schedule of ‘workers’. The law stipulates that each task takes 45 minutes. For one such task done on six days a week, they should receive Rs 249 per month. It also says that for an eight-hour working day, they should receive Rs 1699 per month. Families larger than four persons should pay 10% more as wages.

    Not many people know about the law so the union has been having meetings with residents’ associations and civil society groups to discuss it. However, the union says that the law is problematic for two reasons:

    • the guidelines assume that one task takes 45 minutes but most domestic workers multi-task. According to a study conducted by the union, the average time taken for one task is actually 1 hr 36mins. This they feel is unfair to the worker, as the hourly and daily rates are lower than the 45-minute rate, and it is not feasible to complete the work in half the time.
    • the assumption of a six-day week is false. In 161 cases out of 162, the worker did not receive a weekly day off, and did not receive overtime in lieu, according to a study conducted by the union.

    The union recommends that there should be spreadsheets specifying different tasks such as sweeping, cleaning, washing, dusting, cooking etc. The time taken to complete each task should be calculated and charges fixed on this basis. The union proposes that a domestic worker doing at least three different tasks should be paid Rs 450. The union is also demanding a weekly day off. Social security issues are also to be discussed.

    Significantly, the workers clearly articulate the need to be recognised as workers and treated with dignity and respect. As Maariyamma rightly puts it: ‘the present culture in our society has to change from one of Master-Servant to that of Employer-Employee. There are some people who treat their domestic maid with respect and sympathy. But how does one ensure that all workers who do domestic work get paid properly and treated with respect?’

    Related resources:
    The domestic workers of silicon city, Infochange
    Domestic Slaves
    , Frontline
    Study Shows Domestic Workers Endure Abuse, Cruelty Worldwide, Feminist Daily News
    The Anti-Feminist Brigade: Women Who Hire Domestic Workers

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    10 Responses

    1. I dont believe legislation can solve the issue of wages, whether hre or in other such spheres. But organisation in every locality will surely mke their power felt. Its always a miracle to me how people crib to pay their maids less than what they may spend at a single meal at a fancy restaurent.

      On the other side, I believe some of the larger apartmnt complexes hv already begun setting norms on payment.

    2. Usha, do you work at Infosys. I think I’ve seen you(or someone who looks similar)

    3. Thanks Usha for writing this!

      ‘In other words, they are a crucial cog in the economic wheel, allowing many homes to earn an additional income. Yet, they remain poorly paid and face multiple discriminations. Most domestic workers are women from marginalised classes and castes and even here, in their workplace, they receive neither fair wages nor recognition as employees.’

      Are the studies you mentioned in the ‘related resources’?

    4. It is a good idea to stipulate that workers recieve Rs. 1699 for an 8 hour work-day, but how will that ever get enforced ? In the desperate poverty that most domestic workers live in, there are multiple people who will work for less, so why exactly will someone pay more ? I don’t see domestic workers ever getting any help from the law (practically speaking) in getting just pay.

    5. Thanks for the comments! I agree law in itslef can not ensure that domestic workers are treated and paid well. There has to be changes in the way they and thier work is valued and treated. But law does give them a foothold to assert thier right.
      Becky, the study is not available on related resources. You will have conact them directly to get a copy of the study. U can write to mahila_21@yahoo.co.in for further details.

    6. Dear friends,Its heartening to hear so many voices.We do need all the support in the union,and some brainstorming.The minimum wage fixed by the government is today for 8 hrs work Rs 2080!!Includes baby care.This is something the union is objecting to .We dont accept this minimum wage concept,as when it comes to wages only there is a minimum,but there has been no minimum put on profits!!!Our argument is for aliving wage,our slogan–decent wages for decent work.When we calculate the std of living costs for the dom.worker,we realise and are fighting for Rs 500-600 an hrs work ,only basic cleaning work.We are fixing different rates for skilled jobs as cooking and child care.While we are int the struggle,with govt being indifferent,we have to go beyond this min wage notification and seriously talk of law and policy.We need mechanisms to enforce registration of all workers,their protection.Can keep discussing for hrs.,but thks Usha and lets keep the channels of talk going.

    7. This is a good move.

      However, I wonder why there is a perception that domestic workers hold all the power. Middle-class households complain about lack of availability of workers since there is a high demand for them. There are also many anecdotes about people leaving without notice (sometimes after salary has been paid), about irregularity and about demands for loans.

      It looks like there’s a need for reform on both sides. Fair wages, leave, etc. are good measures but the industry also needs to become more professional.

    8. This is in reference to an article ” Domestic Workers and Demand for Living Wages” posted in The South Asian on Feb 11, 2006.
      In this article you mentioned “This paper draws its data from extensive surveys of Domestic Workers and their Employers, carried out in May-June 2005.”
      Could I have access to any of this data or would you know of a source where I could get such data, I am working on a theses in Grad school and my topic
      is on Domestic Workers.
      Thanks!!

    9. Suchi I agree with what you are saying. I was perplexed with this issue as well. During my visit to Mumbai, I observed my own relatives as well as family friends complain about workers leaving without notice as well as difficulty finding workers.

    10. I think it is all about demand and supply.

      In places where domestic workers are not available in enough numbers, I’ve seen them holding households for ransom- Demanding Rs 200- 400 per month, per task (Washing cloths, cleaving vessels, cleaning house etc) for working every alternate day…

      probably in smaller town where more people are available for household work the pay might be lesser.

      Here in Chennai we pay Rs 700 per month to our maid, for washing cloths and cleaning the house. She comes 2-3 times a week (supposed to be every alternate day).

      It is perfectly fine to demand a decent pay. but that has to be complemented by certain professionalism in their work (like informing in advance if they plan to be absent, coming on time, quality of work, maintaining hygiene, unions doing proper background checks etc)

      Just my opinion.

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